Wireless Multimedia Almost Ready for Prime-Time

The convergence of wireless networking and multimedia in the home seems a natural. As products employing 802.11 technologies to move music and video get ready to ship, we ask the musical question: Is Wi-Fi ready?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Wi-Fi enabled devices for music or video were everywhere. Intel, Motorola, HP, and others have joined the chorus of voices supporting Wi-Fi for linking cable television, DVD players, and other entertainment gadgets proliferating in homes and offices.

The Linksys Wireless Digital Media Adapter, scheduled to ship the second quarter of 2003, is an Access Point made more presentable for the living room. Rather than an Ethernet connection, the adapter connects to audio and visual equipment, allowing MP3s stored on your PC to be heard through home speakers or JPG pictures or Windows Media File format video to be viewed on your television. The adapter uses Intel’s Xscale chips.

Along the same line is HP’s Digital Media Receiver using Wi-Fi to bring music and pictures stored on a network PC to your television or stereo. With your home network and the $299 device, you can listen to Windows Media music files, along with viewing and printing pictures.

The Software Connection

Powering many of the consumer gadgets is software from SimpleDevices, a San Mateo, CA-based company with high hopes for Wi-Fi and home entertainment. Investors in the developer include Rockford Fosgate, which has Omnifi – a device allowing you to use Wi-Fi to store tunes on your car’s stereo – and Motorola , which plans to offer its Simplefi device for linking the PC with your home stereo.

“Wi-Fi is critical to the adoption of connected devices in the home,” says Hanford Choy, Vice President of Engineering at SimpleDevices.

As more people begin adopting Wi-Fi, Choy says, wireless multimedia moves within reach of the average consumer.

“Prior to the mass adoption of Wi-Fi, users could easily spend $500 to $1000 equipping several PCs for wireless access in the home.”

Home Networks’ Achilles Heel

Despite an expected 160 percent growth of Wi-Fi in the home during 2002, In-Stat/MDR analyst Gemma Paulo says the “Achilles heel of the home market remained multimedia support.”

“Wi-Fi is not suited for multimedia,” says Paulo. Paulo points to a low level of quality of service, a need for standards and high prices as factors hindering the introduction of Wi-Fi multimedia support in the home.

Although Magis Networks, backed by entertainment heavyweight AOL Time Warner along with manufacturers Motorola, Hitachi, Sanyo and Panasonic, says its Air5 chipset can deliver high-quality wireless video, Paulo says the company is using its own version of high-speed 802.11a technology.

“There needs to be a standard, not proprietary method of transmission,” she says.

Considering the Cost

While few Wi-Fi enabled multimedia products announced have included prices, “for the home market, one of the first considerations is cost,” says Paulo.

Jupiter Research analyst Joe Laszlo says home multimedia networks could breathe more life into 802.11a, the high-speed (54Mbps) wireless standard many view as being eclipsed by the introduction of products based on 802.11g.

“The potential for interference with microwaves, cordless phones, and other Wi-Fi networks may make consumer electronics makers hesitate to use 2.4Ghz gear,” says Laszlo. “I can imagine 802.11a carving out a long-term niche for itself for media networking.”

One example is Sony’s 802.11a-based RoomLink home network, says the analyst. The small mirror-finished box attaches to your home stereo system but can stream content like photos, video and music, pulling that content from PCs on the wireless network.

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